This is the text of a sermon for St. Bartholomew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The gospel reading it references is John 1:45-51.
This week, while I’ve been preparing to preach on St. Bartholomew, I’ve ended up thinking about the Holy Grail. I don’t mean the romantic cup of legend, but the most elusive Holy Grail of modern life; work-life balance. I certainly haven’t attained it; despite my best efforts to do a little of everything well, I somehow often end up feeling as if the bits of my life are disconnected fragments held in tension, rather than part of a balanced, unified whole. And as I look out at all of you, I know I’m far from alone.
I want to explore the nature of the quest for work-life balance a little bit, because I think it relates to the defining trait of St. Bartholomew quite closely. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said of Nathanael (the other name for Batholomew), “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” With Bartholomew, what you see is what you get.
Even the most ancient Christian writers recognized this quality as a profound virtue in the Christian life, and a lot has been written about it as “simplicity.” In recent times it has gone somewhat out of fashion, but in some Christian traditions – the Quakers would be an example – simplicity has been a defining concern.
So what is “simplicity”? In classical terms, a virtue is seen as the balance point between two corresponding vices. Simplicity might be seen as the balance point between excessive ascetism and profligacy. It cuts a straight path between these extremes because it is governed by a profound authenticity and sense of purpose. What you see is what you get. Certainly Bartholomew didn’t beat about the bush in the conversation we heard today!
Let me be clear: this is not the same as simple-mindedness or being simplistic. Simplicity is an inward reality which can be seen outwardly. It’s not a system or a set of rules. If we were talking in terms of art, it would not be an exercise in painting by number, but more of a moral aesthetics; a fresh freedom to discover what it means to live as Christ’s disciples together.
Ultimately, this freedom comes from the profound trust of a deep relationship with God; it has roots sunk deep in prayer. And from that deep relationship with God comes a healthy sense of our own selves, not needing others around us to reinforce who we are, but knowing that who we are comes from the open hands of a gracious and generous God. Bonhoeffer put it this way: “To be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted, and turned upside down.”
I really can’t stress the importance of relationship with God enough; simplicity – or any virtue – is just another anxiety and burden until people have experienced God’s gracious power to provide for their deepest needs. Only then are we free to live in trust.
This place of trust, of deeply knowing God as the everlasting arms which hold us up, then allows a simplicity and authenticity of life to flow out into various aspects of our lives. It is seen in clarity of thought; in direct, honest speech; in acceptance of what is really going in, in all its difficulties; in a focus on a life of purpose. Simplicity is not concerned with the pangs of consumerism. This is why many books on spirituality explain the value of decluttering as a serious spiritual exercise. Or of eating simple meals and even growing your own food. Simplicity is more interested in doing stuff than having stuff. In that way, simplicity is related to that other out-of-fashion virtue, modesty; by which I don’t mean obsessing about necklines and hemlines but investing more in doing good, than looking good.
And these aspects of simplicity and integrity are what brought me to thinking about work-life balance. The spirituality of simplicity has – as one English bishop put it – a “theology of enough.” Simplicity is an invitation to get off the treadmill-lists of “things to do,” and take time for silence, for reflection, for beauty, for knowing ourselves more deeply and learning to live together in unity.
Because virtues are not just for individuals; they are also about the quality of our life together. I’m aware, as I stand here in these vestments, against the backdrop of this sanctuary wall, of a certain irony in preaching on simplicity. It might sound as if I want to strip it all back to plain albs and white walls and all of that. But these things are an authentic expression of who we are in this parish. In that sense, I don’t think that they indicate a lack of simplicity in the sense that I’ve been talking about it. Simplicity isn’t devoid of beauty or celebration, but allows those things to find their proper place in our lives.
Still, it is a good thing for us to hear a reminder that in our contemporary culture, models of a healthy simplicity are desperately needed. Our neighbours are crying out for leaders and exemplars who model authenticity, clarity, and purpose. If our community can be one in which we show the value of a deep spirit of prayer, and a life of obedience to the purposes of God, we can be a real place of refreshment in a world that sees little enough of those things.
Think of what Paul wrote to Titus; “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured.” If we can do that – if we can be a church where the integrity and reverence of our lives is the example we set before the world; if we can be a community where what you see is what you get – we will have taken to heart the example of St. Bartholomew, the Israelite in whom there was no deceit, in a truly healthy and life-giving way.